Visitors can Watch as Peabody’s Prized Dioramas Undergo Restoration
By Melanie Brigockas
October 12, 2018
The dioramas of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History are regarded as masterpieces in the museum world. Modeled after a specific place at a specific time, these three-dimensional scenes of taxidermy specimens, vegetation, and other objects in their natural setting document historic landscapes and the life there.
Several of the dioramas are 55 to 75 years old, and some of the objects within are as old as 130 years. Due to the long-outdated methods and toxic chemicals employed when these dioramas and mounts were created, together with years under the elevated heat of halogen lamps, serious damage has occurred that modern techniques can correct.
Thanks to a $25,000 grant from The Avangrid Foundation, the museum has been able to undertake the meticulous work of restoring three of these exhibits: the Mule Deer, Alaskan Brown Bear, and Bison dioramas in the Hall of North American Dioramas on the museum’s third floor. Led by museum preparator and noted sculptor Michael Anderson, creator of the Peabody’s Torosaurus sculpture, the project began last spring and is expected to be completed by the end of October.
Because removal of the taxidermy mounts in each of the dioramas risked damage to the surrounding sculpted landscape, the Peabody construction team created a makeshift studio for Anderson by sealing off the three dioramas from the remaining gallery space. The large panes of glass fronting the dioramas were removed to allow entry. The windowed enclosure with its proper air handling allows work to be performed inside the dioramas in full view of museum visitors. A work bench inside the enclosure allows Anderson to do prep work on site as well.
With renovation on the Mule Deer and Alaskan Brown Bear dioramas complete, Anderson is putting the finishing touches on the Bison diorama, where the mounts are of historic significance and in most need of repair. The three bison mounts — two adults and one calf — were originally created by Jenness Richardson in 1889 for his first diorama at the American Museum of Natural History where he was the museum’s first taxidermist. They are only the second taxidermy mounts ever created by an American taxidermist in an American museum. Famed zoologist and conservationist William Hornaday, under whom Richardson trained, created the first for the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Richardson collected the bison from wild herds in Wyoming. After the Peabody acquired them in 1945, museum preparator Ralph C. Morrill installed them in a meticulously recreated Wyoming landscape, featuring a background scene by master painter Francis Lee Jaques. The restoration of this diorama as with the others is focused on the three-dimensional foreground and objects within, which aging has affected to a much greater extent than the painted background scenes.
First, Anderson removed the taxidermy birds and small mammals, which underwent repair in his workshop. The next step was addressing the faded and damaged vegetation. Patrick Sweeney, Peabody collections manager for botany, discovered that some of the vegetation had a surprising provenance: the “buffalo” grass was from Connecticut, not Wyoming. Authentic grass from Wyoming was obtained, which Anderson dried, colored, and preserved. After installing it, Anderson replaced the small birds and mammals.
Repairing the mounts has been Anderson’s most challenging task, he says. He is using a non-rigid material to repair cracks in the skin of the bison mounts, as he had on the Alaskan Brown Bear mounts. He collects fur from the not-visible side of the mounts to create “felted” patches to cover bare spots. Because the faded mounts no longer depict the animals’ true coloring, Anderson will restore color to the bison pelts by spraying them with Orasol® dyes as he did on the Alaskan Brown Bear mounts.
Signage outside the makeshift studio explains the tasks currently being performed as well as recent progress. Visitors can catch Anderson at work most weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Once complete, new signage for the dioramas will highlight the concept of change over time as it relates to human impact on ecosystems and their animals.
The Avangrid Foundation funds philanthropic investments primarily in the 24 U.S. states where AVANGRID Inc. and its subsidiaries operate. Headquartered in Orange, Connecticut, the foundation has had a strong commitment to the project. “The Avangrid Foundation, in partnership with our local subsidiaries such as United Illuminating and Southern Connecticut Gas, has been investing in the sustainability and well-being of our communities for over a century,” said Nicole Licata Grant ’98, foundation director. “Many of us grew up with these dioramas, and it was our first introduction to the majesty of the North American landscape. They are an artistic and cultural treasure that we are dedicated to preserving for the next generation.”